What happens when the nation’s schools are led by the ‘Turnip Taliban’, ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘backwoodsmen’?
There are obvious limitations to ‘bottom-up’ localism which require ‘top-down’ intervention, and Mr Hannan mentions the obvious example of national defence. If one were to ‘localise’ the armed forces, one might soon arrive at a policy of war by referendum: while The Parachute Regiment think Afghanistan to be a good idea, 1st Battalion The Rifles would rather go to Iraq, and The Prince of Wales’ Division decide to opt out of the lot after the intervention of their Commander-in-Chief who suggested that battling against Muslims impinged upon his role as Defender of Faith.
Localism cannot operate where the national interest is concerned.
Of course, what constitutes the common good, what is purely local and what is actually national are determined ultimately by ‘top-down’ centralised government, and they will vary from era to era, invariably spinning on a perpetual carousel of money-wasting fancies and whims.
But that is politics.
Yet the problems which the Conservative Party (or, rather, the Shadow Cabinet and CCHQ) appear to be having with their recidivist and recalcitrant local associations will be as nothing compared to what horrors await us if the ‘Turnip Taliban’, ‘dinosaurs’ or ‘backwoodsmen’ start to run schools.
This is a serious issue.
It is one thing to laud deregulation in education and to liberate headteachers and governors to pay teachers whatever they want and to teach children more or less whatever they see fit.
But local Conservative associations have never had liberty to this extent, and they are judged by the present Conservative Party leadership to be no longer fit for purpose.
Whatever that unwritten, unspoken, uncodified purpose was.
They are considered by the enlightened élite to be so deficient, narrow-minded, sexist, prejudiced and bigoted that they cannot even be trusted to select the right sorts of candidates to represent them in Parliament.
Yet if these groups of undeniably highly-educated, experienced, knowledgeable, discerning, committed and intelligent people cannot be trusted with such an elementary pursuit as recruitment, what makes Michael Gove think that those who will run the nation’s schools will be any less needful of central intervention?
It is one thing to socially engineer the constitution of Parliament in order to give the appearance of representative progress and social diversity. But it is quite another to inflict upon future generations of the nation’s most vulnerable the patriarchal prejudices of a ‘Turnip Taliban’, the prehistoric philosophies of the ‘dinosaurs’ and the unenlightened attitudes of the ‘backwoodsmen’.
It was a Conservative government which introduced the National Curriculum in 1988 and thereby defined a ‘core of knowledge’ which every schoolchild ought to know, without which he or she was deemed unlikely to contribute positively to society or become a properly-functioning adult.
But now the Conservatives want to reform or even abolish it, and leave it to individual headteachers and governors to decide what they believe is appropriate and relevant. If parents like it, the school will prosper and expand. If parents do not approve, they can withdraw their children and spend their ‘vouchers’ elsewhere, leaving the school to ‘fail’ or be taken over by a successful model.
But the National Curriculum is not quite the same as refuse collection.
Notwithstanding that quite a few teachers might like to add it to the refuse.
It is, frankly, absurd that all schools, irrespective of social make-up and mental ability, are obliged to study the same texts, do the same maths, explore the same science and the same history. Try teaching Macbeth or Lord of the Flies to students in a special needs school – to 14-year-olds with the mental age of three – and you will appreciate that the inflexibility of the National Curriculum places grotesque constraints upon educators, and that reform is long overdue.
Interestingly, only Religious Studies is exempt from this ‘top-down’ central diktat, with each area being at liberty to draw on experienced religious leaders and teachers to formulate a ‘local’ syllabus. Thus Bradford and Leicester might teach Christianity and Islam, while Southall is free to teach Christianity and Sikhism.
And in all cases (presently) there is a statutory requirement upon school leaders to provide a compulsory act of collective worship which is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, and to provide Religious Education which gives primacy to the Christian faith in order to reflect the history, traditions and majority make-up of the country. This has been the case since 1944, and no party of any political hue has sought to tamper with this settlement.
Is Michael Gove considering dispensing with this?
He has not said anything on the matter, and Cranmer awaits with bated breath.
But the logic of his ‘bottom-up’ policy is that the Christian foundations of state education will be dispensed with. Unless, of course, a school wishes to keep them.
And Cranmer cannot quite see some of the ‘Turnip Taliban’ (or, more importantly, the unvegetated Taliban) wishing to hold a daily act of collective worship which is ‘broadly Christian’, or giving anything like ‘primacy’ to the Christian faith, because they happen serve another god.
Mr Gove is reported to want children to be able to recite the kings and queens of England and the United Kingdom.
Cranmer has some sympathy with this, and also with his plans to ‘beef up’ history from the present prescriptive vacuity to inculcate a degree of pride in the achievements of Empire and for pupils to be gain inspiration from the accomplishments of such individuals as Winston Churchill.
But it is difficult to ‘localise’ the curriculum without risking the ‘dinosaur’ governors ensuring that science remains hazily thematic rather than studied with academic rigour as distinct disciplines – biology, chemistry and physics; or the ‘backwoodsmen’ teachers espousing that modern foreign languages ought not to be studied at all; or English may be learned in some trendy fashion which has already been tried and tested and found wanting.
If, as Mr Gove avers, the key problem with the National Curriculum is that it was written by educationalist bureaucrats for educationalist bureaucrats, what makes him think that a ‘Turnip Taliban’ will do any better? He might decry the fact that parents are presently ‘locked out by jargon-ridden prose’, but this is as nothing to their being ‘locked out’ by an uncompromising, unaccommodating and utterly inflexible religious ethos.
There may be too much assessment and too many tests, but if this diminishes and decreases, by what means will one assess the damage being done by the ‘dinosaurs’, and how will this be quantified before it is too late for the present generation of schoolchildren?
Presumably, Mr Gove’s response will be ‘Ofsted’, or some new incarnation of this deficient inspection regime.
And this will almost certainly lead to ‘Turnip Taliban’ inspectors assessing ‘Turnip-Taliban’-run schools, for only the Taliban can really grasp and understand the objectives of the Taliban, and if Son-of-Ofsted dared to send in inspectors who did not appreciate the ethos of the Taliban, there will doubtless be cries of ‘racism’, ‘religion-hatred’ or some other phobia or discrimination.
Mr Gove refers to the National Curriculum as ‘a classic example of the Thatcherite contradiction of preaching decentralisation while doing the opposite in practice’. And he accuses New Labour, ‘with its faith in measurability and the evolution of league tables’, of deepening the problem.
His solution is therefore to permit thousands of schools and academies to be able to opt out of it altogether. He believes, given time, that freedom will trump prescription.
What will central government do when a school takes a religio-political view? Will Mr Gove’s ‘New Schools’ be permitted to formulate their own sex education syllabus? Will they be free to teach ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons? Will they be free to dispense with the statutory requirement for a daily act of collective worship that is ‘broadly Christian’ and replace it with something more ‘culturally sensitive’?
We all know, of course, that if the propagated worldview is liberal and ‘left’, Whitehall has done nothing. But if it is deemed to be illiberal and ‘right’, all hell tends to break loose. And Son-of-Ofsted will then be tasked with intervening in these madrassas of the evil forces of conservatism.
The National Curriculum has suited the past 13 years of Labour rule because it has been a useful tool of social engineering: teach a child ‘citizenship’ from the age of 5, and they will grow up to believe that abortions are fine, being gay is cool, experimenting with drugs is natural, and that no authority has any right at all to infringe their opinions, criticise their beliefs, or attempt to impose anything so Neanderthal as a concept of right and wrong or good and evil.
But forget schools.
What will the Conservative Party do when they learn that the ‘Turnip Taliban’, the ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘backwoodsmen’ have taken over local government?
Will Whitehall intervene to halt what they deem to be ‘loony’ policies?
At what point will the Shadow Cabinet or CCHQ realise that the ‘Turnip Taliban’, the ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘backwoodsmen’ are the increasingly-not-so-silent majority?